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Health IT projects stalled by staffing shortages

EHRs and other systems are creating demand, but a tech worker unemployment rate that is half the national average makes help hard to find.

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli amednews correspondent — Posted July 29, 2013

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Hospital information technology projects are often delayed before completion because of a lack of qualified staff, according to a July Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society survey.

The 2013 HIMSS Workforce Survey charted IT staffing trends for both vendor and health care provider organizations. Nearly half of the 224 health care organization respondents said they have placed an initiative on hold because of a shortage in IT staff. Implications of such moves were viewed as negative by respondents.

With IT unemployment at 3.3%, well below the overall rate of 7.6%, finding IT workers is a challenge, even for staffing professionals. “We see it every day and get calls, ‘Can you help me find staff?’ ” said Eric Born, managing director of Medix IT Staffing Solutions in Chicago, the survey’s sponsor. “Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t. We’re already at a staffing disadvantage, and demands are driving faster than the talent pool can keep up.”

Widespread outsourcing is predicted in the next year, with 93% of respondents planning to outsource services such as project management.

Job boards and employee referrals were used most widely to recruit staff, with employee referrals the most successful recruitment tool. Born said that training non-IT workers can help bridge the gap.

At Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the IT staff has grown from 23 to 78 in just more than a year. “When I came here all the staff was outsourced,” said Steve Garske, chief information officer, who came to Kootenai in 2012. “We brought everything in-house.”

According to Garske, the key was hiring top IT managers and directors and then developing an internal pipeline of the best and brightest and training them for the long term. Staffing changes and a renegotiation of their EHR contract helped bring them $700,000 under budget.

Keeping employees just as important

In addition to hiring or promoting from within, many of those surveyed believed it was critical to retain qualified staff. More than half of both health care (60%) and vendor (64%) respondents indicated their organizations were most likely to offer professional development opportunities. Fifty-two percent of vendors cited perks such as full- or part-time telecommuting.

Hiring IT staff is often not possible for doctors even though EHR mandate deadlines loom. “For smaller physician practices, hiring their own IT professionals, even for a short period of time, may be overly financially burdensome,” said Sean McClellan PhD, postdoctoral fellow with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute in California. “This is perhaps one of the reasons that smaller practices still have much lower rates of EHR adoption.”

Born said physician groups are banding together to share costs, and many health care organizations, such as Kootenai, which supports approximately 50 physician practices, include IT support to physician practices.

According to the survey, 80% of respondents plan to hire at least one IT employee in the next year. To keep pace with this growing need, Born said innovation is important. “Health care information technology hiring continues to be strong, and a lack of qualified resources remains a threat,” he says. “We can either be handicapped by it or find creative ways to address it.”

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External links

“2013 HIMSS Workforce Survey,” HIMSS Analytics, July (registration required) (link)

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